Samsung opens Android 10 One UI beta ahead of final launch

After pushing back a planned early-October launch, Samsung has introduced the Android 10 beta of its One UI. The 2.0 version of the Android skin follows a little less than a year after the first version’s beta (released in November 2018). The concept goes counter to the earliest Android overlays, instead intending to create a simpler take on Google’s operating system.

Manufacturers’ longstanding instance on putting their own stamp on Android is understandable — if sometimes misguided. Samsung’s initial stated intention for One UI is to let software and hardware “work together in perfect harmony,” to paraphrase Stevie Wonder.

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One UI is largely a success on these fronts. And Samsung is understandably cautious about the rollout, opting again for a public beta version ahead its Android 10 release. “Select” Galaxy S10 owners in the U.S. can sign up for the program starting today, with a final release “in the coming months.” There are a lot of Galaxy phones out there, so the company clearly wants to get the experience right, gathering up user feedback in the process. 

Here’s what’s new, per Samsung:

  • A new, smarter layout with animated icons and improved edge lighting
  • An enhanced Dark Mode that reduces display brightness while viewing content and provides battery saving benefits
  • Minimized pop-ups, embedded loading indicators and the ability to only view buttons the user needs
  • A streamlined design where notifications take up less space, allowing users to stay up to date while focusing on the task at hand
  • Focus Mode to pause apps temporarily for times when you need to minimize distractions

More info on Samsung’s blog.

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold concierge service is live in the US for those who need it

Part of Samsung’s reboot of the Galaxy Fold was the announcement of a Premiere Service. Along with a reinforced version of the phone and a lot more warning labels, the company announced that it would also be a 24/7 care service…just in case something happened with the device.

I had some issues with my in just over a day, after not running into any trouble with the original version of the phone. Given how gingerly the company insists users act with the device, my issue doesn’t appear to be particularly widespread — good news for Samsung on that front. Even so, this sort of things feels pretty necessary for a $2,000 (and up) phone that is effectively in mass beta testing.

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Two weeks after making the device available in the States, Premier Service has gone live. Sammobile noted the addition of Fold Concierge via a new software update, bringing with it support via phone or video chat. The list of potentially helpful features ranges from on-boarding with the device to a $149, same-day screen replacement service. That can be accommodated in person at a number of locations.

It’s a pretty unique offer from a big consumer electronics company — though the Fold is nothing if not unique, I suppose. I’ve got a fuller write up of my impressions of the handset here. The TLDR version is the I can’t recommend the purchase of what is very much a first generation device that’s double the price of a standard flagship. If you’re so inclined, however, Samsung’s got a hotline for you.

Samsung’s Galaxy Watch Active 2 is a solid smartwatch for Android users

Samsung makes good, underrated smartwatches. It’s just been difficult to get much attention in a category so utterly dominated by a single player. Even still, the company has managed to hold onto the number two spot in global market share, according to recentish numbers. At 11.1 percent, it’s a little less than a third of what Apple’s been able to generate.

The line has been a fairly stark contrast to Apple’s offerings. Samsung’s smartwatch philosophy is in line with its mobile counterpart: offer variety and don’t be afraid to try new things. Compare that to the Apple Watch’s annual improvements. The company offers one, key product, opting to make a little bit better, piece by piece.

Announced at the Unpacked event that gave us the S10 back in February, the Galaxy Watch Active presented a streamlining of the line. And simplified —and, most notably, cheaper — take on the Tizen-powered wearable line. Honestly, that $200 price point was really the key, putting the device in line with Fitbit’s relatively recent foray into the category.

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A mere six months later, it returned with the Galaxy Watch Active 2. The device brings a smattering of upgrades, including improved heart rate monitoring (with the ECG sensor currently still in beta) and the addition of both an LTE model and a larger 44mm version. Thankfully, it maintains a streamlined design that’s a welcome alternative to some of Samsung’s bigger, bulkier offerings. 

Oddly, the company has opted to move away from the rotating mechanical bezel with the Active line, which has long been Samsung’s key differentiator in the category — perhaps in the spirit of maintaining that kind of minimalism, The rotating mechanical bezel is, simply put, the best way I’ve come across for interfacing with smartwatches, including Apple’s crown.

The Active 2 attempts to adapt the feature into a digital version with haptic feedback. Essentially you swipe around the outer edge f the device and haptics simulate the clicking of the wheel. It works better than I’d initially anticipated, but the lack of the original feature is still pretty glaring. Here’s hoping the company rethinks the omission for future versions.

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As with the latest Apple Watch, there’s an always on screen option, though it’s going to take its toll on battery life. With the feature off, however, I was able to get more than two days life on a single charge, which isn’t too shabby. That’s better than Apple, though both companies are still well behind what Fitbit’s able to get out of a device.

Honestly, in 2019, all smartphone makers should be pushing for ways to get more life on a charge — especially those offering some form of sleep tracking. Now that other features like ECG have begun to become ubiquitous, this ought to be the next big push for the industry at large.

My Style is a fun, but ultimately unnecessary trick, wherein the app lets you tailor the color of a watch face using a smartphone photo of what you’re wearing. The app selection is still pretty limited, compared to Apple’s offering, though some key features like Spotify are here. That now includes offline playlists. Other key apps like YouTube have been improved as well.

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It’s hard to imagine the company catching up to an Apple on the third-party app side, but Samsung’s long had one key advantage over the Apple Watch: Android compatibility. And with Google’s Wear OS being fairly consistently underwhelming, Samsung’s got some real opportunity to capture even more marketshare.

It would be nice if the Active Watch 2 was a bit more aggressively priced. Apple’s decision to keep older units around means you can pick up, say the Series 3 for $200. There’s also the $200 Fitbit Versa 2. Some may find the $280 price point worth it for the (forthcoming) addition of things like ECG, but for most consumers, the $200 original Watch Active continues to be the better deal.

Life with the Samsung Galaxy Fold

Avoid pressing hard on the screen.

Tap lightly to keep it safe.

Your Galaxy Fold isn’t water or dust resistant.

Don’t allow any liquids or foreign objects to enter it.

Don’t attach anything to the main screen, such as a screen protector.

So begins your journey. It’s the story of one of the most fascinating product releases in recent memory. It’s also the story of the most polarizing product I’ve ever reviewed…twice.

The Galaxy Fold is at once a hopeful glimpse into the future and a fascinating mess. It’s a product I can’t recommend anyone purchase, but it’s one I’m still glad Samsung had the guts to make.

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What’s perhaps most frustrating are the glimpses you get using the device, those moments it transcends lovely and is legitimately useful. And when you leave the device at home, you actually start to miss the 7.3-inch display.

Two scenarios in particular have really highlighted the value of Samsung’s strong-headed approach to pushing boundaries.

First is the gym. Unfolding the device and propping it up on the control panel of a piece of exercise equipment is a beautiful thing. Full-screen Netflix, baseball games from MLB At Bat. Watch the minutes and the calories just fly away. The Fold also works great with the Galaxy Buds, which are legitimately one of the best hardware products Samsung has produced in ages.

Second is the subway. I’ve been prepping for interviews by reading Pocket stories on the train, with the Notes app open in a side window. This is great. Like a seriously awesome thing. And this is coming from someone who still has trouble embracing smartphones as serious productivity devices. There are just too many limitations to that small screen. When I want to get work done, the laptop comes out. I’m not suggesting the Fold completely changes the math here, but it does edge ever closer, blurring that line a bit in the process.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

So there you go. That’s two distinct examples, covering both entertainment and productivity. The fact is the same as ever: big screens are good. The question is how we get there. It’s a true fact, of course, that plenty mocked Samsung with the first Note device. It seems hard to believe, but in 2011, 5.3 inches seemed impossibly large for a phone. By 2018, however, 5.5 inches was the most popular screen size for handsets. And that number appears to still be growing.

Clearly Samsung was right on that one, and the Note played an outsized role in pushing those boundaries.

After years of teasing flexible and foldable displays, the tech world was understandably excited when the Galaxy Fold finally arrived. Honestly, there were long stretches of time when it felt like the handset would never arrive. As such, it feels strange to suggest that the product was somehow rushed to market.

It’s important to remember, of course, that part of the mainstreaming of big phones has been the technologies supporting the large screen. Samsung, Apple, Huawei, et al. have done a good job consistently increasing screen to body ratios. The new Notes may have bigger screens than ever, but other breakthroughs in manufacturing means we’re not walking around with bricks.

Similarly, this decidedly first-generation device is big and thick. Anecdotally, reactions have been…mixed. The two separate rounds of review devices I’ve received from the company (round two, for reasons we’ll get into in a second involved two devices) have coincided with big TechCrunch-hosted events in San Francisco. First TC Sessions: Robotics in April and then Disrupt last week.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

Take some of this with a grain of salt, because my co-workers can be pretty damn cynical about new technologies (and yes, I’ve been at this long enough to include myself in this). Reactions ranged from genuinely wowed to disappointed bafflement. There was also one co-worker who repeatedly threatened to eat the device because she said it looked like an ice cream sandwich, but that’s a story for another blog post.

There are plenty of things to be critical from a design standpoint. The “first-gen” feel runs very deep with the device. When closed it’s quite thick — like two phones stacked atop one another. The crease is visible, as has often been reported. And the front display isn’t particularly useful. I get why it’s there, of course. There are plenty of moments when you just want to check a quick notification, bit it’s incredibly narrow and sandwiched between two massive bezels.   

None of those really matter much compared to the device’s fragility. The Fold will forever be the device whose release date was pushed back after multiple reviewers sent back broken devices. Mine worked fine. The company went back to the drawing board for several months and came back with a more robust device that patched up some holes and reinforced the folding mechanism. Mine broke.

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After about 27 hours with the device, I opened it up in line at CVS and noticed something weird about the screen. Sitting between the butterfly wings was a mass of pixels I referred to as an “amorphous blob.” I’d been fairly gentle with the thing, but, as I put it in a followup, “a phone is not a Fabergé egg.” In other words, it’s understandable that the product isn’t designed to, say, survive a drop onto hard concrete or a dunk in the toilet.

While it’s true that many other modern phones have evolved over generations to withstand such accidental bumbles, it’s also understandable that the Fold is a little more fragile. We can’t say Samsung didn’t warn us, and I do appreciate that Samsung was able to go back to the drawing board before wide release, but there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that a smartphone that needs to literally ship with warnings like the ones stated up top isn’t fully ready for prime time.

CNET recently got its hands on a folding machine and found that the handset could withstand 120,000 fold. That’s a little more than half of the promised 200,000. Another third-party test found similar results. Not ideal, but not terrible. It’s about three years’ worth of folds. If you’re dropping $2,000+ on a phone, you may well want it to last closer to the promised five years — though if you have that sort of disposable income, who knows?

Samsung Galaxy Fold

I would honestly be more concerned with the kind of day to day issues that could potentially result in damage like what I saw. It’s possible that mine had a defect. I’ve been using a replacement that Samsung dropped off after collecting mine to send back to Korea for testing. Granted, I’ve been using it even more gingerly than its predecessor, but so far, so good.

This morning I saw a report of a user experiencing what appears to be the same defect in the same spot. A commenter astutely pointed out the placement of a screw discovered during a recent teardown that could be the source of these issues. As ever, it will be interesting to see how this all…unfolds.

I’m not going to get too far into the other specs here. I wrote thousands of words in my original review. Nothing about the underlying technology has changed between versions one and two. All of the big updates have been to the folding mechanism and keeping the device more robust.

It’s fitting, I think that my model had 5G built-in. Both technologies feel like a glimpse into the future, but there’s little to recommend plunking down the requisite money to purchase either in 2019. The clear difference is that slow saturation of next-generation cellular technology is a bit more understood at this point. Telling someone that their fingernails can damage their $2,000 phone is a different conversation entirely.

Samsung Galaxy Fold

I do think that Samsung’s committed to the Galaxy Fold long-term. And I do believe that there will eventually be a place for the products in the market.

The biggest short-term concern is all the negative press following the first wave of devices. The FlexPai felt more like a prototype than consumer device. The Fold feels like something of an extended public beta. And the Huawei Mate X, which, although incredibly promising, is still MIA, as the company does another pass on the product. Global availability is another question entirely — though, that’s due to…other issues…

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Knowing Samsung, the company will return from all of this with a much stronger offering in generation 2. There are a LOT of learnings to be gleaned from the product. And while it offers a glimpse into the promise of foldable, you’re better off waiting until that vision is more fully realized.

Samsung pulls the plug on Chinese smartphone production

Samsung this morning confirmed with Reuters that it has shuttered handset production in China. The move comes as the company continues to struggle in the world’s No. 1 smartphone market.

As we noted in a deeper dive into China’s smartphone sales back in August, the Korean hardware giant has struggled to maintain a market share in the low single digits. It’s not alone, of course; Apple, too, has faced an uphill effort to crack the market, which is dominated by homegrown names, including Huawei, Vivo, Oppo and Xiaomi.

Sales have been driven by a combination of pricing and, in the case of embattled Huawei, patriotic purchasing decisions.

Samsung has slowly phased out production in the country over the past year, suspending operations in some plants, before ultimately pulling the plug altogether. The news follows a similar move by Sony. Apple, meanwhile, is maintaining its production in the country for now.

More recently, Samsung has looked to others countries, including India and Vietnam, which have undercut China’s production costs. The company will, however, continue selling phones in China, even as it eyes other cheaper locations for manufacturing.

Africa’s top mobile phone seller Transsion lists in Chinese IPO

Chinese mobile-phone and device maker Transsion has listed in an IPO on Shanghai’s STAR Market, a Transsion spokesperson confirmed to TechCrunch. 

Headquartered in Shenzhen, Transsion is a top-seller of smartphones in Africa under its Tecno brand. The company has also started to support venture funding of African startups.

Transsion issued 80 million A-shares at an opening price of 35.15 yuan (≈ $5.00) to raise 2.8 billion yuan (or ≈ $394 million).

A-shares are the common shares issued by mainland Chinese companies and are normally available for purchases only by mainland citizens. 

Transsion’s IPO prospectus is downloadable (in Chinese) and its STAR Market listing application available on the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s website.

STAR is the Shanghai Stock Exchange’s new Nasdaq-style board for tech stocks that went live in July with some 25 companies going public.

Transsion plans to spend 1.6 billion yuan (or $227 million) of its STAR Market raise on building more phone assembly hubs and around 430 million yuan ($62 million) on research and development, including a mobile phone R&D center in Shanghai, a company spokesperson said.

To support its African sales network, Transsion maintains a manufacturing facility in Ethiopia.  The company recently announced plans to build an industrial park and R&D facility in India for manufacture of phones to Africa.

The IPO comes after Transsion announced its intent to go public and filed its first docs with the Shanghai Stock Exchange in April.

Listing on STAR Market puts Transsion on China’s new exchange — seen as an extension of Beijing’s ambition to become a hub for tech startups to raise public capital. Chinese regulators lowered profitability requirements for the STAR Market, which means pre-profit ventures can list.

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Transsion’s IPO comes when the company is actually in the black. The firm generated 22.6 billion yuan ($3.29 billion) in revenue in 2018, up from 20 billion yuan a year earlier. Net profit for the year slid to 654 million yuan, down from 677 million yuan in 2017, according to the firm’s prospectus.

Transsion sold 124 million phones globally in 2018, per company data. In Africa, Transsion holds 54% of the feature phone market — through its brands Tecno, Infinix and Itel — and in smartphone sales is second to Samsung and before Huawei, according to International Data Corporation stats.

Transsion has R&D centers in Nigeria and Kenya and its sales network in Africa includes retail shops in Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Egypt. The company also attracted attention for being one of the first known device makers to optimize its camera phones for African complexions.

On a 2019 research trip to Addis Ababa, TechCrunch learned the top entry-level Tecno smartphone was the W3, which lists for 3,600 Ethiopian Birr, or roughly $125.

In Africa, Transsion’s ability to build market share and find a sweet spot with consumers on price and features gives it prominence in the continent’s booming tech scene.

Africa already has strong mobile-phone penetration, but continues to undergo a conversion from basic USSD phones, to feature phones, to smartphones.

Smartphone adoption on the continent is low, at 34%, but expected to grow to 67% by 2025, according to GSMA.

This, added to an improving internet profile, is key to Africa’s tech scene. In top markets for VC and startup origination — such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa — thousands of ventures are building business models around mobile-based products and digital applications.

If Transsion’s IPO enables higher smartphone conversion on the continent, that could enable more startups and startup opportunities — from fintech to VOD apps.

Another interesting facet to Transsion’s IPO is its potential to create greater influence from China in African tech, in particular as the Shenzhen company moves more definitely toward venture investing.

In August, Transsion funded Future Hub teamed up with Kenya’s Wapi Capital to source and fund early-stage African fintech startups.

China’s engagement with African startups has been light compared to China’s deal-making on infrastructure and commodities — further boosted in recent years as Beijing pushes its Belt and Road plan.

Transsion’s IPO is the second event this year — after Chinese owned Opera’s venture spending in Nigeria — to reflect greater Chinese influence and investment in the continent’s digital scene.

So in coming years, China could be less known for building roads and bridges in Africa and more for selling smartphones and providing VC for African startups.

The Galaxy Fold is now available for purchase in the US

This is, surely, the moment some loyal fans have waited for. And understandably so. The Galaxy Fold is, by all measures, an exciting phone. It’s the sort of bold brashness that has helped Samsung set itself apart from the competition. Many of us laughed at the Galaxy Note, too, and yet here we are, with larger phones across the board.

Five months after originally planned, the Galaxy Fold goes on sale today in the U.S. The handset has had its share of set backs, of course. The first round ran into problems from several reviewers for a variety of reasons. And as I outlined yesterday, I ran into my own issues with the reinforced version of the handset.

Even in its current version, the Galaxy Fold is a fragile thing. That’s something Samsung has been abundantly cautious about disclosing, through a video pleading to “just use a light touch” and a lot of paper work that ships with the device. I’ll be giving more thoughts on my time with the product in an upcoming writeup. In the meantime, however, anyone thinking of plunking down the $2,000 and up needs to factor that into the equation.

But this is a phone, not a faberge egg. It will be interesting to see how wider availability plays out. There is still a sense around the launch that we’re dealing with a sort of wider scale beta phase here. It would be silly to suggest that the foldable category will live or die by this launch, but it will surely be the most closely watched device release in recent memory.

Also out today is the Galaxy Watch Active 2. If been wearing that device around as well. More on that soon, but so far, so good.

Amazon might reveal fitness-tracking Alexa wireless earbuds, Echo with better sound this week

Amazon is building wireless earbuds that offer Alexa voice assistant access, and fitness tracking for use during activities, according to a new report from CNBC. These earbuds, combined with a new, larger Echo designed to provide more premium sound, could feature into Amazon’s hardware event taking place this Wednesday in Seattle, though the outlet is unclear on the release timeline for this gear based on its source.

These earbuds would be a major new product for Amazon, and would be the company’s first foray into personal health and fitness devices. While Amazon has either built or bought products in a wide range of connected gadget categories, including smart home and smart speakers in particular, so far it hasn’t seemed all that aggressive in personal health, even as Apple, Samsung and others have invested heavily in these areas.

CNBC’s report says that these new Alexa buds will have an accelerometer on board for measuring motion, and will be able to also provide distance tracking, calories burned and pace – in other words, all the things that you’d expect to track with a fitness wearable like the Apple Watch or a Fitbit.

Leaving aside their fitness features, earbuds would provide Amazon a way to deliver a more portable Alexa for people to take with them outside of the house. The company has partnered with other headphone makers on similar third-party Alexa integrations, and they’ve also experimented with bringing Alexa to the car, for instance, but it’s largely still a home-based assistant, successful as its been.

Helping the appeal of these reported new products, the buds are said to be retailing for under $100, which will put them at a big price advantage when compared to similar offerings from either dedicated audio companies and headphone makes, and to potential rivals like Apple’s AirPods. Though the report indicates that they’ll still rely on being connected to an iPhone or Android device for connectivity, as they won’t have their own data connection.

Amazon is also readying a bigger echo that has a built-in woofer and overall better sound than its existing lineup, according to CNBC . That mirrors a report from July from Bloomberg that also said Amazon was readying a high-end echo, with a planned launch for next year.

Some or all of these new hardware devices could make their debut at Wednesday’s event, but it seems likely a lot of what we’ll see will be a surprise.

Five months later, Samsung’s Galaxy Fold arrives this week

There’s fashionably late and then there’s the Galaxy Fold. Initially scheduled for an April 22 launch, the device was delayed after multiple reviews returned broken devices. Samsung was quick to blame users, only to ultimately go back to the drawing board.

A few months later, the company offered a broad September timeframe. Samsung hit the mark with time to spare in its native South Korea, launching the device a few weeks back. Now it’s time to do the same here in North America. The company’s first foldable (and, really, for that matter, the first “commercially viable” foldable) arrives this Friday, Sept 27.

The handset will be available as a carrier branded version through AT&T stores or unlocked through Best Buy and other retail locations. As noted, the company’s also offering a “Galaxy Fold Premier Service” — apparently part of the reason it canceled the original round of preorders. Basically the company wants to personally help users who buy the $2,000 deal with any specific problems.

Notably and somewhat humorously (albeit unintentionally so), the company recently issued a “Caring for your Galaxy Fold” video, which highlights how to not break the expensive new device. Samsung appears somewhat resigned to the fact that, which the device has been improved over the first attempt at going to market, the product is still more fragile than what we’ve come to expect from our smartphones.

To quote Samsung, “Just use a light touch.” That comes with the somewhat redundant “Do not apply excessive pressure” footnote. Not exactly the sort of thing that inspires confidence in a product’s durability. 

Tech startups want to destigmatize sex

Sex, despite being one of the most fundamental human experiences, is still one of those businesses that some advertisers reject, banks are hesitant to financially support and some investors don’t want to fund.

Given how sex is such a huge part of our lives, it’s no surprise founders are looking to capitalize on the space. But the idea of pleasure versus function, plus the stigma still associated with all-things sex, is at the root of the barriers some startup founders face.

Just last month, Samsung was forced to apologize to sextech startup Lioness after it wrongfully asked the company to take down its booth at an event it was co-hosting. Lioness is a smart vibrator that aims to improve orgasms through biofeedback data.

Sextech companies that relate to the ability to reproduce or, the ability to not reproduce, don’t always face the same problems when it comes to everything from social acceptance to advertising to raising venture funding. It seems to come down to the distinction between pleasure and function, stigma and the patriarchy. 

This is where the trajectories for sextech startups can diverge. Some startups have raised hundreds of millions from traditional investors in Silicon Valley while others have struggled to raise any funding at all. As one startup founder tells me, “Sand Hill Road was a big no.”

A market worth billions or trillions?